Dean Stockton is a blue-collar Brit raised on punk rock, skateboards and Thrasher Magazine. If Johnny Rotten was right about there being no future, why not shake up the present, and Stockton did so with hand-drawn stickers, graffiti tags, street murals and sculpture installations that all ran afoul of the law. From ignoring skateboarding bans to stickering up most of London, this early U.K. street artist regularly defied numerous prohibitions under his street alias D*Face.
To the law and order dittoheads, D*Face's activities sound like a one-way ticket to jail or life as a drag on society. Few, if any, would think this rebellious lifestyle would lead to art collaborations with Queen Elizabeth II and Pope Benedict XVI, two of many projects that highlight D*Face's rise as one of England's foremost street artists. Most non-art fans even know his work, from his D*Dog logo to his bold street murals (see slider at bottom) found around the world. He's designed album covers for the likes of blink-182 and Christina Aguilera, and he ventured into motorbike design with London's Rebels Alliance Motorcycle Company and skate decks with REAL.
In his only U.S. show this year, D*Face debuts Happy Never Ending on September 23 at the Corey Helford Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibit features 22 original canvases and several more based on his street murals. Shortly after he arrived in Los Angeles, PRØHBTD spoke with D*Face to learn more.
About 10 years ago, you described D*Face as a secret government project to test the public response to something different than mundane advertising. To what extent is that still a goal?
I think that still stands true today. I'm trying to push what I do for my own creativity and amusement, and in doing that, I hope to bring the public along on the journey. Hopefully it still represents a break from everything they see around them. The ideal goal is to keep moving and bringing the public with me, and hopefully they don't become too familiar with my work that it just becomes a part of the landscape of advertising and visual pollution that we see around us all the time. Part of that is keeping myself fascinated with my own work and not becoming complacent and boring.
You described Happy Never Ending as the resurrection of romance in the modern era. What was romance, how did it morph into what we have today, and what elements would you keep and discard?
That's very key. I grew up in an area where there was no internet. There were no mobile phones. The way you met somebody was by being at a similar place, location, and having mutual interests. You hit it off, you call them, you romance them, you make sure that everything was aligned to be future partners.
Nowadays you've got Tinder and whatever else where you can just swipe and meet people, and there's no romance involved. It's literally like IKEA for people. There's something lost in the idea of meeting people who are completely on your same wavelength and having a bond that is greater than lust. There's nothing wrong with lust, that's absolutely fundamental, but everything has become too disposable, and one of those things is romance. That should be held sacred, and you should look to find those people who are special to you. I'd try to retain an element of that, but I'm not going to dismiss the idea of meeting people easily and on the same wavelength. It's just about being mindful and retaining that element of romance within a relationship, new or old.
Comparing artwork you created last year to the pieces in Happy Never Ending, what are the primary signs of evolution and new creative direction?
The work is more refined than it has been previously. There's more detail. The work's taking longer because I'm putting that extra level of finish into them. I'm also continuing to work within sculpture and installation pieces. I've always been fascinated with taking something 2D and trying to pop it and make it 3D. That's very much an important part of my body of work. The themes and stories are, I hope, very familiar to people. That's what makes them, sort of iconically, my work, but the craft that goes into them is constantly evolving. I'm constantly trying to push to make them more and more refined, and this body of work is the most refined version of that so far.
You recently became an ordained minister, so I want to ask a spiritual question: Does god smoke weed or shroom?
It has to be shrooms.
There's some crazy, crazy stuff out in the world that only someone who has hallucinated and been on that level would come with. I think that, if you're smoking weed, it probably wouldn't have happened. If you're doing shrooms and having amazing visions, that's pretty much what's been influencing God out there.
Without revealing too much, what tips would you give readers for deciphering themes and social commentary in your artwork?
I use very graphic, very pop, [Roy] Lichtenstein-inspired artwork and graphics, but for me, pop art was a mixed critique of popular culture, and it became a celebration of [pop culture] rather than what it set out to be. I want to use visual cues that people are very familiar with so that, on the straight surface, you understand the reference. But for me, it's making that relevant to today's society, where we understand the darker twists that our impact has had on society. People often see death in the paintings, and I think it's the physical representation of death in a relationship, but it's actually more about a metaphorical death. Still, I don't want to tell people what to read because I've had more interesting commentaries from people who read something else into the paintings and give me lovely solutions that I would, quite frankly, never have come up with.
A lot of pop art features celebrity imagery, and in your early artwork, yours did as well. Does putting celebrity images into art—even in a critical context—increase the public's obsession with celebrity culture?
It does. I've always used past celebrities rather than current celebrities. If I make portraits of Kim Kardashian or Kanye West, all I'm doing is giving them more credence and credibility because attention, whether negative or positive, is still attention, and that's essentially what they desire anyway. I did explore that in previous work, but I don't find that relevant to me any longer. More now than ever, people are fascinated with celebrity and becoming famous. It's almost like their duty to become famous and for no particular reason. I'm not out there to draw attention to those people any more than they're already doing so themselves.
I didn't think to distinguish between current and past celebrities. If painting somebody like Marilyn Monroe, what impact do you think it has on the culture surrounding her celebrity legacy?
Well, I'm actually fascinated with people who died young. I think long and hard about how that person's suspended in that period of time. They don't have the unfortunate legacy of becoming old and being remembered as that old person rather than remembered for that amazing bright light that burned so bright.
Marilyn Monroe is a perfect, flawed example of a celebrity. On the surface, she's absolutely idolized by everybody and desired by most men. She had everything that anybody would ever want, certainly most women. Underneath that was this incredibly flawed, jaded, desperate character who wanted something more. She was completely unhappy with her life and struggled to find a relationship that was supportive of her and who she was as a person.
She's a great example of today's equivalent, which is something like Instagram, where you view the perceived idea of the personality of that public figure. You think, "Wow, what an amazing life," because they're posting all these pictures. They're here, they're there, they've got all these followers, but it's a complete façade. It's not the truth. It's not always the reality of that person at all. Unfortunately, people live their lives by viewing other people's lives that way and thinking their own lives are incomplete. It's just not a true perspective. Marilyn Monroe's a great example that we shouldn't forget we're all real and we're all flawed in our own ways.
What role do street artists have in speaking truth to power?
Street art's changed and evolved hugely since I started doing it more than 20 years ago. Back then, it wasn't called street art, and when people started calling it street art, it made my skin twitch. It sounded like a nice way of packaging what was essentially still graffiti. They were trying to sell it to people in a way that made it more acceptable 'cause most people's idea of graffiti was criminal damage.
I grew up with graffiti, so for me, street art was just another evolution of it. The original street art was interesting in its simplicity. It didn't need to have any huge, powerful statement because, in its essence, it was already doing that. It got people to question what they're surrounded with. It interrupted the advertising because it was predominantly bold, black and white, graphic, and put in places where it shouldn't be. At that point, it remained very relevant. I think that's why it captured the public audience so quickly and so easily. This is a new art form that speaks to everybody, and everybody can get involved, from encouraging others to make their own art to just documenting a point of view.
Now that's evolved into a much more refined version of itself. We're still working within the public domain, which is incredibly important. As an artist, continuing to work in the public domain excites me as much now as it did then, albeit differently. Now I get the opportunity to paint huge murals, whereas before, that wasn't really an option for me. Everything was done illegally, and now I get permission for my work. I still get to have that dialogue with the public, and I get more time to have it. As long as it continues to evolve, street art will always be relevant.
Did you ever have an instance in which you were arrested or had a major problem putting up street art illegally?
In the early days, nobody really knew what was going on, so it was easy. Someone with a can of paint instantly sets off alarm bells, but this, for the most part, was people with stencils, posters and stickers. Nobody really got it. This went on for a period of time until the police realized it was, and should be treated as, graffiti. At that point, [arrests] come with the territory. At some point, you're going to get caught, and I was caught on several occasions.
For a long time, I felt it was important to keep my identity hidden because I was doing more and more illegal stuff. That was what excited me, and I was going from posters, stickers, stencils and illegal murals to installing illegal sculptures. As I've gotten older and I'm doing less illegal work, it's more important for me to justify what I'm doing as an artist and not hide and lurk in the shadows.
How do see your views on America evolving as seen through the prism of your artwork?
I get to travel more now so I've been in America a lot. I learned more about American culture being here rather than being a spectator looking through what were rose-tinted glasses. As a kid, I read and watched everything that was America related, and I hoped and wished to stand on the pavements in California rather than on the soggy, wet, gray streets in London. I held America in a particularly high regard, and I still do. It's a place I absolutely love, and I count California as my second home. But with someone like Trump in power, we're very aware of where we are in the world and how different it is.
What role did skateboarding and punk rock play in your life growing up?
Both of those things came from a very DIY point of view. I started skateboarding, I was chased off the spots, and it was seen as a really degenerate thing to do. It was never considered the sport that it is today. That's what made it endearing to me: It was seen as an outcast thing to do, and it was exciting and rebellious. It was exactly the same with punk rock music, and that DIY culture has influenced me massively.
My family didn't have money to buy stuff, but my father was very much hands-on, so everything was made. This gave me a mentality to make stuff from scratch, from the ground up, and find a way to make the idea happen. Those things are synonymous with the core of skateboarding and the core of punk rock. That's how I see the inspiration from a visual point of view. Plus, skateboarding and punk rock graphics were hugely inspiring to me. You know, Jim Phillips is my hero. He absolutely inspired me to no end, without me even knowing his name at the time. I just saw these graphics that were subversive and twisted and dark and funny, and I thought that was the best thing in the world. The skateboard magazines and the adverts in them also inspired me, as did [the books] Subway Art and Spraycan Art.
Speaking of Subway Art, did you ever tag subways in London or NYC?
Not in New York, but yeah, I used to tag as much as I could. Very amateur league, very badly, because I was just a young kid influenced by a book with masterful artists within it. But that was the catalyst that pushed me to do things illegally and with the boldness and simplicity and graphics that went with graffiti. That's always been prevalent within my work and my inspirations.
Early on, you created hand-drawn stickers that you put up around London. Which sticker had the strongest reaction?
I wasn't really trying to have a strong message with those characters. It was more about a subversive break from everything that surrounds you. It was a little reference, mainly for my friends, to be like, "When were you in that spot?" And it didn't start with the character with the wings, which is called D*Dog. It started with a square-headed character that filled up the most amount of space I could occupy, but when I started to draw the round character with the wings, something about it just stuck. I wanted to do more and more with that character, and then realized I could take that character apart and just use the wings on their own. You would still get the reference, and those elements became iconic in their own right. It was just light-hearted fun for me, and I never knew it'd go as far as it did. It's so far removed from where it started and where I could ever imagine it being. It's an amazing journey, and it's awesome to be in the position I am in now.